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DEATH BECOMES HIM

by S. David Ram    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and content, and he was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him" (Genesis 25:8-9).

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"And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and content, and he was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him" (Genesis 25:8-9).

Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, infers from the second verse that Ishmael repented, since he gave precedence to Isaac. When mentioning the death of Ishmael, the Torah writes, "And he expired and died and was gathered to his people" (ibid. 25:17). Rashi says here that the word "expired" is mentioned in reference to the righteous. For example, the same word is used by the death of Abraham (ibid. 25:8). Rashi explains that Ishmael, too, is considered righteous. The Talmud notes that the term "expires" is also used in reference to the generation of the flood; and they were certainly wicked. This shows that the word "expired" may not exclusively be used for the righteous, and maybe Ishmael did not really repent. The Talmud answers that when the word "expires" is coupled with the phrase "and he was gathered to his people," it alludes to righteous people; namely, to the death of Abraham and Ishmael.

In the opening verse of this week's portion, the Torah mentions the death of Sarah. "Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah's life" (ibid. 23:1). Rashi explains that the reason the word "years" is repeated after every stage, instead of just stating Sarah's age straightforward (i.e. one hundred and twenty seven years), is to teach that each yearly term must be interpreted independently. Namely, at one hundred she was like a woman of twenty with relation to sin. Just like she was without sin at twenty, so was she still sinless at the age of one hundred. And at twenty, she was like a girl of seven vis a vis beauty.

Rashi follows the same pattern of interpretation in Genesis 25:7 where the verse reads a similar way to describe the age at which Abraham died. The Ramban, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, argues on the interpretation offered by Rashi. The Ramban points out that the same word construction is used when describing the life span of Ishmael. The verse says, "one hundred years and thirty years and seven years" (ibid. 25:17). According to the rule enunciated by Rashi, the division into three separate terms of "years" would indicate that all of Ishmael's years were equally good. And even if one would point out the Talmud which describes that Ishmael repented at the end of his life, his earlier years still cannot be equally as good as his later years; for he only became righteous at the end of his life! Therefore, the Ramban concludes that Rashi must have derived the idea from the phrase at the end of the verse, "the years of Sarah's life," which is an expression that equates all of her years (and this phrase is not used when describing the death of Ishmael). It is the conclusion of the verse, therefore, that indicates the equal status in all respects of all the years of her life.

In defense of Rashi, the Da'as Z'keinim, the biblical commentary by the Tosafist school of the 12th and 13th centuries, points out that the reason Ishmael's years are given in the same word construction implies that Ishmael's repentance was so sincere and so complete, that his earlier sins were erased. Thus, his life was equivalent to an unbroken chain of righteousness.

Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance (2:1), describes the process of teshuvah (repentance). He writes that if one would sin all of his life, and on his deathbed confess and repent all of his sins, this would be considered effective teshuvah; but not complete teshuvah. Complete teshuvah, as Maimonides describes, is only when one is faced with a similar situation in which the person sinned in the past, and this time around, does not sin. By the person rectifying his previous iniquities by refraining from the same sin, he then has achieved complete teshuvah.

Perhaps, the reason why the Da'as Z'keinim is able to say that Ishmael's repentance was complete, was because of the order in which the Torah illustrates Ishmael's repentance process. First, the Torah offers us the story of Abraham's funeral and shows that Ishmael, through allowing Isaac to proceed him at the funeral as is mentioned in the verse, was in the process of doing teshuvah; namely, by rectifying his previous sins through his present actions. Then, after Ishmael died, the Torah was able to show that he, in fact, did complete teshuvah. And the Torah goes so far as to compare Ishmael to the righteousness of both Abraham and Sarah.

We can learn from Ishmael the power of complete teshuvah, and that even though one was wicked his entire life, if he would repent completely through his actions, he could be compared to even the most righteous people.

Less than two months ago, all of us were standing before G-d on the days of awe, begging for His forgiveness. Now, after all of our begging and all of our promising, we are faced with the same trials of everyday life. We are faced with the same tribulations with our middot (attributes), our prayers, and our learning Torah. The question is: Can our repentance be as strong as the repentance of the wicked Ishmael? Can we be as focused and as steadfast in our fear of Heaven as was Ishmael?

Ishmael has taught us an important lesson - that all of us can have a stronghold in our Torah, prayers, and our kind deeds - and keep the momentum of teshuvah throughout the entire year.

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S. David Ram, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, is studying in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.

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